Leaky bucket, overflowing bucket

The Philosopher Developer

June 22, 2022

Note: this post was published in 60 minutes.

I've used this analogy over the years with multiple people, both team members reporting to me as well as peers and friends. Since others have told me they found it helpful, I decided to write it down to share more broadly.

Early on in most of our careers, our responsibilities are limited. The people we work with don't depend on us for too much yet. But we may be capable of doing a lot, and many of us are eager to be given a chance to do more.

Let's call the ratio of capacity to responsibility the "C/R ratio". At this stage in our careers, C/R is greater than 1. This means that, for most of us, our capacity exceeds our responsibility: we are capable of doing more than is being asked of us.

For this reason, when we're still relatively new in our careers, failure to fulfill our responsibilities is typically a sign of a "leak". We have the capacity, but we still dropped the ball.

A bucket that's leaking
A bucket that's leaking

Fortunately, leaks can be patched. With a little mentorship, some better time management tools, or just simple practice, we can get better at managing the responsibilities assigned to us and become more reliable workers.

As we grow in our careers, both our capacity and our responsibilities increase. We can do more, and more is asked and expected of us. But often the rate at which responsibility increases exceeds the rate at which capacity increases, driving C/R down. Eventually, we may reach a point where C/R drops below 1, meaning suddenly our responsibility exceeds our capacity1.

This represents a difficult moment for many people. You start developing that feeling of "dropping the ball" again. You associate this feeling with the presence of a leak, but you struggle to find ways to patch it. In fact, at this point to call the issue a "leak" is to misdiagnose the problem. It is no longer a leak that can be patched; it is an overflow.

A bucket that's overflowing
A bucket that's overflowing

At this stage, it becomes necessary to revisit your C/R ratio. If you want to get it back to 12, at a high level, you have two options:

  1. Increase capacity (e.g. hire more people, ask for help, take a course)
  2. Reduce responsibility (e.g. delegate, deprecate, deprioritize)

Either way, communication is vitally important. Unless you are communicating clearly to those around you that you are at capacity, that your bucket is full, they will continue to pour more responsibility into it and it will continue to overflow.

Ideally there would be an objective quantifiable measure of these things (capacity and responsibility) but there isn't, which means you cannot rely on a system or process3 coming to your rescue. Be self-aware, understand your priorities, and help anyone impacted by your C/R ratio understand what you're focused on and why.

  1. Note that what I'm describing is different from the Peter Principle, which is about being promoted into a role that you are fundamentally ill-suited for. The scenario I describe here is not about achieving a level where you're incompetent (I'm sure this also happens, but I don't think I've experienced it yet), only one where the practical constraints of available time and energy prevent you from doing everything that is expected of you. 

  2. It's worth acknowledging there are some readers for whom this may not feel like a problem that needs to be solved. It could be a feature, not a bug. There is a certain school of thought that it's better for everyone to have too much to do than too little. It isn't my personal view (I believe excess capacity is an important way for organizations to be resilient), but it's a view. 

  3. At least none that I've encountered!